An amateur photographer recently posted a video on China’s Youku website capturing a probable Dongfeng-31A (DF-31A) convoy transiting downtown Shaoyang, a prefecture-level city in Hunan Province. The video showed a single DF-31 transporter, erector, launcher (TEL) moving north accompanied by six camouflaged support vehicles and a Public Security escort.
The DF-31(A) TEL may have been on its way to a new Second Artillery brigade headquarters facility located in the far western suburbs of the city. Formerly based in Hunan’s Tongdao County, the 805 Brigade initiated construction of new facilities in Shaoyang in 2008 and completed its relocation last year. Older facilities in Tongdao County were being dismantled in 2010.
The DF-31 and DF-31A are assumed to carry only a single nuclear warhead, which don't appear to be mated with missiles during peacetime. The 55 Base’s 905 Regiment— euphemistically referred to as an Equipment Inspection Regiment—maintains the 55 Base’s inventory of ballistic missiles and a limited number of nuclear warheads in underground facilities. The 55 Base Technical Service Regiment has responsibility for transporting warheads and missile sections from 905 Regiment depot facilities to launch brigades when ordered to do so. The brigade’s technical battalion assembles missile sections and mates them with warheads in underground facilities maintained by the brigade’s site management battalion. The missile is subsequently hoisted and loaded into the brigade’s TELs, which are rolled out to pre-surveyed launch sites. The brigade’s communications battalion is tasked with ensuring the brigade commander and political commissar maintain constant communication links internally within the brigade and externally with upper echelons.
Moving toward DF-31(A)?
The 805 Brigade is said to have previously been equipped with the liquid fueled, two staged DF-4 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM). With a range of at least 5,500 kilometres, the DF-4 is capable of reaching targets throughout the Asia-Pacific region, including US facilities on Guam. State media reporting indicates that the 805 Brigade began planning for the conversion to a new missile system at least as early as 2007. The conversion reflects a broader trend in the shift from liquid- to solid-fueled missiles that are road/rail-mobile, and capable of being launched more rapidly. A submarine launched variant of the DF-31, the JL-2, is still being flight-tested.
Since integrating the new missile system, the 805 Brigade has implemented an aggressive training programme. In July 2010, the brigade conducted an exercise involving rapid response, mobility, and survivability. During the second week of March 2011, the brigade carried out tactical mobility training involving night time operations under communications jamming conditions. In April this year, another exercise tested the unit’s ability to counter enemy space surveillance assets. The brigade appears to have been involved in acceptance testing in 2009, which likely involved live fire exercises, and formally introduced the new missile variant into its inventory in 2010.
Chinese government publications indicate the possible establishment of a test and evaluation unit under the 54 Base, headquartered in Luoyang, Henan Province. Located within Xinyang City in southeastern Henan, the test and evaluation unit may be introducing a new missile variant into the Second Artillery Force’s operational inventory. The US Defence Department has reported in the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011 that China is currently developing a new road-mobile ICBM, possibly capable of carrying a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV).
So what does the latest sighting suggest? The presence of the DF-31(A) convoy in Shaoyang augments reporting of the 805 Brigade’s conversion to a new missile variant, and appears to confirm the retirement of the DF-4 and initial introduction of the DF-31(A) to Hunan’s 55 Base. Beyond improved survivability, replacement of the DF-4 increases the number of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles that could be dedicated to a regional scenario, and possibly the United States, in a crisis situation.
According to the Defence Department report, the Second Artillery had approximately 10-15 DF-31 and 10-15 DF-31A missiles in the active inventory. Each brigade is presumably equipped with 12 launchers (six launch battalions, two subordinate companies each, and with each company assigned one launcher). Estimates of China’s ICBM inventory appear to be based upon the assumption of roughly one missile per launcher (or silo). The Shaoyang brigade is likely equipped along similar lines as the first two DF-31 units.
Mark Stokes is the executive director and L.C. Russell Hsiao is a senior research fellow at The Project 2049 Institute.